GREENWICH VILLAGE — A little-known tutoring service quietly operating out of a handful of independent schools in Greenwich Village for nearly half a century is gearing up for its first expansion into Brooklyn.
The nonprofit Go Project was founded in 1968 by a parent from Grace Church School and a parishioner from Grace Church who saw a community that was home both to students in need of academic help and to people with resources to help those less well-off, according to Executive Director Chantal Stevens.
The founders saw that the church "was sitting empty on Saturdays, it was sitting empty over the summer" and thought, "why not bring in students that weren't getting a fair shake in their schools and help put them on a better track?" Stevens said.
They started with 15 students and now, nearly 50 years later, are helping exponentially more. Grace Church is the organization's longest-term partner, but it has since developed partnerships with two other Village-based independent schools, St. Luke's and Little Red Schoolhouse.
In the fall, The Go Project will launch its first partnership outside of Lower Manhattan, at the Berkeley Carroll School in Downtown Brooklyn.
"We have the opportunity to bring our program to a new neighborhood," Stevens said. "Go is such a well-kept secret, and it shouldn't be."
The organization operates with a "holistic model," centered around "three mutually reinforcing strands of service," Stevens said.
"We have to support the whole child. It can't just be the academic pieces," she said.
The first service program, Go Summer, is a five-week enrichment course for students who have special needs or are in jeopardy of not graduating to the next grade.
Certified instructors in reading, math and English as a second language are supported by trained volunteers and specialists in issues like speech.
In the afternoons, students "have access to enrichment classes that run the gamut — art, movement, music — that this population wouldn't necessarily have access to" in their schools, Stevens said.
Students who take Go Summer come back in the fall for Go School, which focuses on "academic skill-building, building on the gains that we made over the summer" with "a lot of one-on-one time" with instructors, she explained.
"Our kids are a vulnerable population and they need continuous support," Stevens said.
Go School focuses on "maintaining the gains that they made over the summer" in an effort to "keep improvement going during the school year," she noted.
The third component is Go Families, which Stevens said is "really integral because we believe in servicing the whole child."
The program offers year-round social-service assistance, working with parents by "helping them to create positive learning environments," as well as connecting kids and parents through counseling, mental health services and housing assistance.
All three programs are provided in four languages: English, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese.
"We want to make sure we can connect with our families," she said.
The Go Project works with students at 30 struggling schools throughout Lower Manhattan — and now in Downtown Brooklyn, where they'll be setting up shop in the fall — to target kids who are "one to two years behind their peers."
Fifty percent of the students have special-education backgrounds.
"We're going after the high-need public schools," Stevens said, explaining that they seek out schools based on how many students are eligible for free meals and the schools' ratings from the city and state.
"We take kids between kindergarten and third grade, before they're turned off of school, before they're bored, before they feel like they just can't learn," Stevens said. "We're going after the ones who are really struggling — we're trying to put them on a path to academic success and life success."
The organization continues to work with the kids and their families through eighth grade, adding various components in the middle school years: service in sixth grade, leadership in seventh grade and social justice in eighth grade.
The Go Project limits the kids it works with to public schools near the independent schools that house their programs to make sure it's not difficult for kids and their families to get to the program.
"I don't want kids on Staten Island to have to try to think about how to get to Downtown Brooklyn, because that's not feasible," Stevens said.
"We push into those schools during the week as well," she added, noting that the organizations makes an effort to develop close relationships with school administrators so that students who are struggling can be referred to them.
"It's really important to us to have a confluence of students in one place to best support them."
The Go Project's funding comes primarily from grants and individual donors, with some corporate support as well. The individual donors are often parents at their "resource-rich" partner schools — Little Red, Grace Church and St. Luke's.
"We are raising everything, pretty much," Stevens said.
And they have hundreds of volunteers who sign up to be specially trained, with three to four trained volunteers in every classroom, supporting a certified teacher.
That allows the students they help, who typically learn with "30 other children and one teacher" in their schools to have more intimate learning experience.
"When they come to us on Saturday, they're in a class with maybe 12 to 15 kids, max, and four to five adults," she said.
Volunteers commit to sticking with the program for at least one school term.
"We don't want to make it so difficult that people find it hard to make the commitment, but we are dealing with students and they rely on us to be there for them," Stevens said.
One volunteer, 27-year-old Valentia Villetti, became interested in issues around education equality while studying at Columbia University. She learned of the Go Project through the Robin Hood Foundation after she graduated and started seeking out "organizations that are actually doing something about this locally."
Villetti has been a Go School volunteer for four years, working on Saturdays with second-graders.
"There’s really quite a range, in terms of the children and their backgrounds. You see a lot of children of immigrants where their parents don’t speak English," she said. "Often we will see a kid who the parents really don't have a way of advocating to get a special assessment for them."
Just this year, she encountered two students "who clearly had some bigger issue," and the Go Project was able to help parents get the kids "diagnosed and performing much better."
Villetti noted that the kids often come from overcrowded schools where "the teachers, I imagine, are really quite overwhelmed."
"You can really tell when you're working with them in small groups or one-on-one, no one's really given them that kind of attention, so you get to form special relationships with them," she said.
In addition to volunteering, Villetti is on the Go Project's Young Leadership Council.
"That's also another way that young professionals in the city can get involved if they can't volunteer," she said. "They can bring attention to the organization and fundraise as well."
Even after four years with the organization, Villetti said she is no less passionate about the work that they do.
"They've been around for almost 50 years and they really fly under the radar," she said.